By Michael Howell
Last week was National Public Safety Telecommunications Week. It is a time set aside to celebrate the service of our nation’s Public Safety Telecommunicators, known in ordinary parlance as Emergency Dispatchers. Dispatchers are sometimes referred to as “the first first-responders” because they are usually the first to be contacted in any emergency. It is these folks who relay emergency calls to all the appropriate “first responders,” whether they are members of the Ambulance crew, the Quick Response Unit, the Fire Department, law enforcement, or in some cases, all of the above and more. Dispatchers are also trained to offer assistance over the phone, giving vital instructions to people on the scene for any actions that might be required to sustain a life until emergency personnel arrive.
According to Ravalli County 911 Center Administrative Assistant Amy Cinflone, each dispatcher receives at least 40 hours of training specifically in Emergency Medical Dispatch. The dispatchers use a quick-reference catalogue of guide cards that was compiled by Dr. Brian Kelleher, Medical Director at Marcus Daly Memorial Hospital, the County Attorney’s Office and the 911 Director. The flip chart guides the dispatcher through the appropriate questions and instructions related to each kind of medical emergency.
“Dispatchers have had to help deliver babies over the phone,” said Cinflone.
It’s a lot to learn. Besides the initial class training in telecommunications, each dispatcher undergoes at least six months of training on the floor under the guidance of an experienced dispatcher.
The Ravalli County 911 Center employs 13 Dispatchers and keeps two to four working every hour of the day and night every day of the week. The Center receives phone calls for, and dispatches to, 12 fire districts, five local law enforcement agencies, five ambulances, and numerous state and federal agencies, including Fish & Game, Montana Probation and Parole, Juvenile Probation, Forest Service Law Enforcement, DES, Search & Rescue, Department of Livestock, Montana Highway Patrol, US Marshals and National Institutes of Health Police.
But the Dispatchers handle a lot more than the 911 emergency calls, they also take routine calls from police and sheriff’s deputies concerning non-emergency activities as well as non-emergency calls from the public. The Dispatch Center has six emergency 911 lines and four non-emergency 363-3033 lines coming into the center. Last year a total of 97,615 calls came through the center. This total includes 10,751 emergency 911 calls, 2,763 emergency medical service calls, 2,031 fire calls, 27,422 calls for other types of service, and 12,929 notification calls about open burning.
Six months ago, administration of the 911 Center, which had been run independently under the auspices of the County Commissioners, was returned to the Sheriff’s Office. Since then Lieutenant Zae Hudson has been in charge of the Center. He and Mark Hawes of Heart Ministries, which provides chaplaincy services and support to all the First Responders in the valley, along with several churches and local businesses, put on a barbecue last Wednesday in honor of the Dispatchers.
“Our community and our First Responders are fortunate to have such dedicated people serving them,” said Hudson. He said that since taking over administration of the Center he has made employee safety in the field a number one priority. Pushing for adequate and sustained funding is also at the top of his list. Hudson also said he wants to reach 90% satisfaction among his employees with job related conditions and 90% satisfaction from his “customers.” He plans on using professional surveys to monitor his progress.
Hudson said that the atmosphere at the 911 Center, when he came on board, was “slightly toxic.” He said that he has worked on changing that environment. He said clarifying roles has helped. He said the employees have been crafting their own job descriptions and have a “crew leader” who is not their supervisor. He said the role of the administrator has also been clarified.
“I can’t do what these people do,” said Hudson. “I’m not a multi-tasker. But what I can do is provide them with what they need to get the job done and a good environment in which to do it. My job is to provide the best leadership and administration possible.” He said new hiring protocols have been developed and that the crews developed a good field training program.
“We’ve come a long way in six months,” said Hudson. He expressed appreciation for the County Commissioners’ support in the recent switch to narrow band which allows all first responders to communicate with each other. He said it was a difficult but successful transition. Hudson also noted that other very difficult transitions were in store. He said that all 911 Centers would be required to accept and deal with texting in 2014.
“That will be a whole new challenge,” said Hudson. He said that a dispatcher can tell a lot about a situation by the sound of someone’s voice. The dispatcher can hear if someone is panicking or if they are calm. This is not so easily detected in a text. He said uncommon abbreviations are often used, making it unclear what is really meant. He was confident that this hurdle, too, would be overcome and his crews would learn and adapt.
“These are exciting times for communication experts,” said Hudson.
Administrative Assistant Amy Cinflone agreed. But Cinflone added that telephone communications are a two-way street involving question and answer and that there were things that the public should be aware of in terms of what is expected from them if they are calling in a true emergency.
“A lot of people think that just because they dialed 911 and we answered that we automatically know their location. But this is not true and this is one of the first things that a person needs to tell the dispatcher,” said Cinflone.
Actually, she said there are a few basic bits of information that everyone should be prepared to give immediately to the dispatcher: the caller’s name, the telephone number, address or location, and a detailed description of the incident. Then listen carefully and let the dispatcher ask questions and guide the conversation. You need to answer questions as clearly and calmly as possible and follow all the directions provided by the dispatcher.
If the incident involves a criminal suspect, be prepared to give a physical description.
The use of a land line, if possible, is advised since the source of these calls can be located, whereas a call from a cell phone may not.
911 is for life-threatening emergencies only. It would also help to make sure that your home or business address is clearly posted where it can be seen from the roadway.